It's a tough time to be a diplomat at the moment as the madness of US President Donald Trump has caused so much chaos on the international stage that he is catalysing the break-up of the post WWII order. Germany is now vocally saying it wants to leave the US security umbrella and take its place as a leader on the world stage. Many of Berlin’s proposals dovetail with policies the Kremlin has been pursuing to break Washington’s hegemony over global politics.
Germany’s new Foreign Minister Heiko Maas recently called the US an “unreliable partner,” as he grapples with a range of crises. Missile strikes on Afghanistan and Syria. The destruction of a delicately built Iranian nuclear sanctions deal. US sanctions imposed on enemies and allies alike. Destabilising the Middle East by inflaming Sunni and Sufi sensibilities. And threats to pull out of a raft of international organisations including Nafta, Nato, the UN Commission on Human Rights and the Paris climate accord. All this is a nightmare for countries on the other side of the table, but it has reached a point where those on the same side of the table have decided that the US is as much of a liability as a partner. The US has not become irrelevant. It remains the largest economy in the world and has the most powerful military by a long chalk. But what has changed is the other leading powers are now actively trying to make it as irrelevant as they can.
The turning point came following German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first private meeting with Trump at the G20 summit earlier this year in Munich. A consummate politician with decades of experience of dealing with some of the most awkward leaders in the world, Merkel was visibly shocked by Trump and called for an end to Europe’s reliance on the US immediately afterwards.
“I have experienced this in the last few days,” she said a few days after Munich without mentioning Trump by name. “And that is why I can only say that we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands — of course in friendship with the United States of America, in friendship with Great Britain and as good neighbours wherever that is possible also with other countries, even with Russia.”
Since then Maas has taken up the baton and in the last two months has started to lay out a blueprint for a new world order where Germany steps up to its responsibility as Europe’s leader and openly challenges the US’s predominance.
What is so ironic about this change in mindset is that it will align Germany and its partners with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who has made abandoning the “unipolar” model of running the planet for a “multipolar” version where the emerging markets — led by Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa — in addition to western Europe, play a much larger role. That process has already started as the G20 summit that so shocked Merkel has taken precedence over the smaller and increasingly irrelevant G7 summits. This year’s G7 summit in Canada barely made the press, while the G20 in Munich was marred by massive and violent demonstrations by anti-globalists.
And Germany’s call for a change is not limited to broad brushstrokes. Maas has been drilling into specific details that mirror many Russia initiatives to remove levers that Washington could use to pressure the Kremlin. Maas wants an independent European military that would downplay the predominance of Nato, a European payments system that would run in parallel to the US-based SWIFT system, and a proactive EU foreign policy lifted from the nation state level to a formal EU foreign council that can act collectively, amongst other things.
Specifically Maas called for a Franco-German alliance that will in effect take Europe out from under the US security umbrella that has been the guarantor of peace since the start of the Cold War, and for Europe to actively oppose the US if it “crosses the line.”
The widening Atlantic
Germany is the biggest economy in Europe and is flourishing. It currently has record low levels of unemployment, strong economic growth, low levels of external debt and the largest current account surplus in the world. Yet since the end of WWII Germany has been shy of playing a large role in international politics. Now it has put these qualms aside.
In a string of speeches and articles Maas is proactively calling for Germany to take the reins of power. Most recently Maas laid out a detailed blueprint in a Handelsblatt article and he was shockingly blunt.
“The fact that the Atlantic has widened politically is by no means solely due to Donald Trump. The US and Europe have been drifting apart for years. The overlapping of values and interests that shaped our relationship for two generations is decreasing. The binding force of the East-West conflict is history,” he wrote.
The crisis in Ukraine is a good example of the growing divergence between Washington and Brussels. Europeans were annoyed by US top diplomat Victoria Nuland, who walked into Ukraine during the Euromaidan protests and took over. “Fuck the EU,” she famously said in a leaked conversation with US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt discussing how to build a new pro-US government.
Ukraine is the EU’s backyard but US policy was a cynical attempt to push its own interests in the region. Leaked US embassy cables called former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych “a man we can do business with” before the revolution, as Washington manoeuvred to limit Putin’s attempt to get Ukraine to join his newly minted Customs Union. Nuland later openly picked jobs for Ukrainian opposition leaders, while Europe became increasingly uncomfortable with the American belief that as “the steward of the planet,” as Nuland said in Kyiv in 2014, it could ignore Brussels and Berlin.
“If you look around the world at who’s made the largest financial and political contribution to this challenge, the United States, I think, is second to none... Are we, as stewards of this planet, going to support the right of individuals to have a say in how they are governed, to live democratically, to live openly, to live in tolerance,” Nuland said during a panel discussion on Ukraine’s East and Crimea: Solving the Unsolvable in Kyiv in 2015.
Post Euromaidan, after Yanukovych was ousted, the Europeans reasserted themselves. Then German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier together with President of the European Council Donald Tusk was at a crucial meeting where the top European diplomats persuaded the opposition protest leaders to call for early elections and leave Yanukovych in office in the meantime. bne IntelliNews sources at the meeting described Tusk shouting at the Ukrainian politicians, warning them there would be blood on the street unless they managed the transition democratically. As it was the decision came to nothing as the crowds on Maidan chased Yanukovych out of the country within a few days. The Americans played little role in these dramatic events. The peace accords of Minsk II were also a European deal negotiated between Merkel, France’s then president François Hollande and Putin. The US got back into the game again later when US Secretary of State John Kerry asserted himself, but ever since then pursuing a conclusion to the Ukrainian debacle has been a Merkel project.
Trump’s ham-fistedness has led the EU to become increasingly assertive in its foreign policy clashes with Washington. A more recent run-in was over the US decision to reimpose a tough sanctions regime on Iran despite the fact it was fully complying with the terms of the delicately crafted deal agreed in 2015 between Iran and the permanent members of the UN security council, plus Germany.
The agreement was hailed as a diplomatic triumph and more importantly it was working, as inspectors say Iran had completely dismantled its nuclear bomb building research apparatus. Moreover, the deal opened the way for businesses to enter Iran, and European companies have already signed off on a string of lucrative agreements.
Trump threw the deal under the bus reportedly at Israel’s behest. In a leaked video clip aired in July by Israeli television, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted that Israel was responsible for Trump’s decision to quit the Iran nuclear deal.
“We convinced the US president [to exit the deal] and I had to stand up against the whole world and come out against this agreement,” Netanyahu says in the video, cited by the Times of Israel. “And we didn’t give up.”
Brussels was incensed by the decision and called on EU businesses to defy the US threat of retaliatory sanctions for any firm that does business with Iran.
“We are encouraging small and medium enterprises in particular to increase business with and in Iran as part of something [that] for us is a security priority,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said on August 7, insisting the member states of the 28-nation European bloc would not let the Iran nuclear deal die. SMEs are less likely to have business in the US and so should be immune to US threats.
These two fights have been dramatic, but Washington and Brussels are now fighting a whole series of low key wars — or in other cases Europe is simply getting hurt by the shrapnel Trump is throwing off. The chaos on the metal markets caused the ill conceived April 6 round of sanctions that targeted Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s aluminium firm Rusal hit the London Metals Market hardest and cost everyone a lot of money. The US energy sanctions proposed before that would have meant sanctions on European companies with business in Russia as well as the Russian targets.
European efforts to mediate in a broad range of situations including Russia, Palestine, Syria and the war in Yemen have all become unpredictable, as Washington increasingly acts without coordinating with its allies. The difference boils down to the US “might makes right” attitude to foreign policy that comic pianist Tom Lehrer sang about in the 40s and epitomised by the giagantic scale of US military might compared to its allies, vs the EU sticking to its core values as the guiding principles of policy making. The US and the EU have fundamentally different approaches to military strategy that could be characterised as "shock & awe" vs "jaw jaw."
“In recent days and weeks in particular, we are finding that where the US Administration overtly calls our values and interests into question, we will certainly need to take a more robust stance in the future” Maas said in his “Courage to Stand Up for Europe” speech to his foreign ministry colleagues in June. “The first test of this approach will be the nuclear agreement with Iran. We Europeans want to defend this agreement and we are united on that. Our aim is not to support Tehran, but rather to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East – something that would also have devastating consequences for our own security here. This can only be achieved if we join forces with France on a very wide range of issues.”
Arms fuel fights
One of the biggest differences in approach between the two camps is the attitude to military support. The US default foreign policy is pouring arms into a disputed region as a way of obtaining control over a government and making some money in the process.
The US has swamped the Middle East with arms, as was highlighted by an infographic that was widely shared on social media in June showing US arms exports over the last 67 years.
There is little Europe can do to curb US arms exports, but what unsettles Brussels is now the US is starting to supply arms to Ukraine. President Barack Obama resisted sending lethal weapons to Kyiv out of fear of escalating the showdown with Russia, but the Trump administration has been less shy, supplying sought-after US sniper rifles and the tank-busting Javelin missiles, which were deployed in May. The latest US budget drafts include $250mn of military aid to Ukraine, including $50mn for lethal military supplies.
Germany prefers to negotiate and engage. Merkel came under fire for meeting Putin in Sochi in May and then again in Germany at the Meseberg schloss on August 17. She was accused of “warming” to Russia, but her forte is finding workable compromises amongst groups of arguing nations and she talks to Putin more than any other foreign leader does.
The Meseberg summit was a nuts and bolts meeting where the two leaders tried to find common ground on a range of hot button issues, but also covered more pragmatic subjects like the new Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and joint investment projects that are still going on.
Another item on the agenda was the meltdown on the Turkish lira, which is another good example of where Europe and Washington clash.
With a large Turkish expat population and Merkel under fire for her liberal refugee policy, Germany fears a mass exodus from Turkey if the Turkish economy collapses, so Merkel is doing what she can to shore up Ankara’s position. Trump, on the other hand, poured oil on the fire by imposing painful sanctions on Turkish metal exports in the midst of the crisis. Merkel has turned to Putin, as an increasingly close ally of Ankara, to help ease the pressure and try and talk some sense into the increasingly unhinged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Merkel has already started to dial down the anti-Russian rhetoric. In the week following Meseberg she toured the Caucuses to show solidarity with the small republics that are all in Russia’s shadow. However, she disappointed Georgians, who were commemorating their war with Russia exactly ten years ago, by failing to affirm Tbilisi’s Nato accession aspirations or even use the word “occupied” in reference to the territories Georgia lost to Russia in the 2008 war.
“I don’t see Georgia becoming a Nato member any time soon,” the chancellor told an audience of students at Tbilisi State University on August 24. “Given the situation with [breakaway] Abkhazia and South Ossetia, we can’t talk about the swift integration of Georgia into Nato,” she said as cited by Eurasianet.org. “At least this is Germany’s position and it will remain as such.”
Nato will change in the new order. Maas has explicitly called for Europe to play a more assertive role in the military alliance that has traditionally been a US proxy as well as creation of a dedicated EU military force.
“It is in our own interest to strengthen the European part of the North Atlantic Alliance. Not because Donald Trump is always setting new percentage targets, but because we can no longer rely on Washington to the same extent,” Maas wrote.
An EU army is half way step away from largely relying on the US military for European security and setting up a truly multinational force under the direct control of the UN. Articles 42 and 43 of the UN Charter authorize the Security Council to use armed forces to maintain international peace and security, but in the past it has been organized along national lines, with members contributing forces from with own armies to a “blue helmet” force and with the US often taking the lead. However, Article 43 of the UN charter provides for permanent independent UN Army that the UN itself could put into the field. This provision has never been used and no plans to create an UN army have ever been drawn up. What Maas is talking about is for the creation of a half measure, a pan-European force with a single command that would work in tandem with the US force in any UN mandated operation, instead of the command-by-committee that is the case now with all European countries being individually represented. Obviously if the EU had a permenant standing army of its own, the role of Nato would be diminished and the UN would take on a larger role in international peacekeeping.
New world order
Maas’s solution to all these problems is for Germany to tie up with France and then use the combined weight of a united Europe to match the US’s increasingly self-interested foreign policies.
“Let’s use the idea of a balanced partnership as a blueprint, where we assume our equal share of responsibility. In which we form a counterweight when the US crosses the line.
“If we go it alone, we will fail in this task. The outstanding aim of our foreign policy is to build a sovereign, strong Europe. Only by joining forces with France and other European nations can a balance with the US be achieved,” Maas said in his article.
This is an openly confrontational statement and one that won’t go down well in the White House. Moreover Maas explicitly says it is time for the Franco-German alliance to take over the job of global policeman — a role that has until now been played by Washington.
“The European Union must become a cornerstone of the international order, a partner for all those who are committed to it. She is predestined for this, because compromise and balance lie in her DNA,” said Maas.
What does this mean for Russia? On balance Putin will probably be happy to see US power dialled back.
This week the US mourns the death of Senator John McCain, but the lasting image of the veteran US politician for the Kremlin is his speech on the stage in the midst of the Euromaidan protests in 2014 saying “America is with you.”
America is outraged by Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, but the Kremlin feels much the same about the US. Putin watched from the sidelines when US political advisors got Boris Yeltsin re-elected in 1996, lifting his ratings from 8% to 54% by using the whole box of dirty electoral tricks and then boasted about it in a Time magazine cover story “Yanks to the Rescue – the secret story of how American advisers helped Yeltsin win.”
Putin went on to equate the US funding of pro-democracy NGOs as attempts to build a pro-US democratic force that would act as a fifth column inside Russia. He finally introduced a law forcing NGOs that took foreign grants to be ladled “foreign agents” in July 2012, which was about the same time as he started the modernisation of the army, which marks the point of no return in the decaying relations between Moscow and the west.
The annexation of the Crimea followed two years later, immediately followed by a big push to set up a Russian payment system and so break Washington’s potential chokehold over executing financial transactions using cards via SWIFT. The Mir (Peace) payment system was launched in April 2015, a move the Germans are now intending to copy.
Like Nuland saw Yanukovych, Putin sees Merkel as a person he can do business with. The personal chemistry between them is not strong, but they are both pragmatists, both totally on top of their game and both acting from a very clear idea of what is in their national interest. And the bottom line is a multipolar world built on negotiation, debate and compromise that is what Putin has been pushing for all along.
“We also need a new Ostpolitik, that is, a European Ostpolitik that also shows new ways to cooperate with Russia in the interests of all European countries — and not merely those chosen by Russia, given the dangerous silence between Washington and Moscow,” Maas said. “It must take into account the needs of all Europeans… and it must find a balance between security interests, economic cooperation and collaboration on cultural and academic matters.”
Indeed, Maas’s agenda of an independent military power and independent payments systems, and the calls for a Europe led by a Franco-German alliance that has the same clout as the US could have all been taken from Putin’s own playbook. And Russia will have to play a role in any future multipolar order.
“We are striving for a multilateral alliance, a network of partners who, like us, are committed to sticking to the rules and to fair competition,” Maas concluded. “Our common response to “America First” today must be “Europe United!””